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Evaluating Sources


So you've been doing some academic research, and you've found a lot of great resources, but how do you know if they're right to include in the assignment? Not all information is created equal, so you'll need to evaluate your resources to ensure that including a source helps your argument, rather than hindering it.

Things to Look for When Evaluating Academic Sources

There are a couple of things you'll want to look for in evaluating an academic article for inclusion in your paper. I recommend looking through these things prior to reading the article so that you don't waste your time reading an article that might not turn out to be worth including in your project.

The recommended places to look are:

As a practical example of evaluation for academic resources, the below PDF has been examined to show you the process to take when evaluating whether an academic article should be included in your paper or speech. Each item is hyperlinked to more information about the process of evaluation:

Paltiel A. D., Zheng A., & Walensky R. P. (2020) Assessment of SARS-CoV-2 screening strategies to permit the safe reopening of college campuses in the United StatesJAMA Netw Open. 3(7). doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2020.16818

1. Author

Start by evaluating the author. In this article, you see that there are three authors. One has a PHD, one has an BA, and one has an MD. That, to start, looks promising, but you'll want to make sure that the authors are writing about a topic they are actually specialized in (for example, for an article about the mating habits of penguins, an author with an English PhD is not likely to be a good source).

When you look into the authors of this article, you find that the first author is A. David Paltiel, Professor of Public Health and Managerial Sciences at the Yale School of Medicine. The second author, Amy Zheng, is a medical student at Harvard Medical School. The final author is Rochelle Walensky, who is the Chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital and a Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. 

You'll also want to make sure that the author doesn't have a particular bias going into writing the paper. For example, you likely don't want to include an article about cheese products published by someone who is an executive at a dairy company. Because they have something to gain by writing the article, they're probably not the best source for information. Often, in a journal, a writer will have to disclose any conflicting information. If you scroll down to the page marked number 10 in this particular article, you'll see there's a section marked "Conflict of Interest Disclosures" and it reads that there are none reported, so there is no bias included in the writing of this paper.

While the authors are not the only important thing about an article, you can be fairly certain that authors such as these are likely to be reliable sources for information.


2. Information Source

Where is the information coming from and what is the process through which it came to be published? If the information is coming from a peer-reviewed journal, you're more likely to be able to trust the content because of the nature of peer-reviewed work. For more information on peer-review, click here.

So, for this article, how do we know the source of the information? Well, you can see that it is from JAMA Network Open, which you can easily find is an open access journal published by the American Medical Association. If you're unsure whether something is peer-reviewed or not, you can always use the Ulrichsweb database to check this out. For example, when you search JAMA Network Open, you'll see:

You can be sure that this material is peer-reviewed because of the little referee symbol. This symbol means that the journal is "refereed," which is simply another word for peer-reviewed. 

If a title is peer-reviewed and the author is an expert in the field, it is likely that is a fairly credible source. There are still a couple of things that you might like to look for before deciding to include the title in your paper or speech, though.

3. Date of Publication

This is a big one (a really big one) for deciding whether something is right to include in your paper. If you're researching the coronavirus, as this paper is discussing, you want the most up-to-date information. If you're looking at a scientific article about the topic written back in February, it's going to be a lot different from this one, which is written in July. For some fields this isn't as important (English or History, for example), but for topics like Business, Medicine, the Science, etc., you're going to want to make sure the information you're looking at is current.

Since this paper is from July 2020, it is likely to include current information.


4. Research Methodology

If you've gotten to this point, you likely are good to include this title in your assignment, but if you're really taking a critical eye to the work in question, you'll want to check to see what the research methodology was for the paper. Did it include this information? If you've found a journal article that doesn't include information on how the research was completed, it is not nearly as credible of a source. Part of the reason for the scholarship is to see if the information provided is reproducible. If this information is not given, then it may not be a great source for your paper.

If you find that the research methodology was actually a survey of ten people but it says sweeping things about an entire field, the methodology is not sound (this kind of scholarship would be vetted through the peer-review process, so you're not likely to run into something like this).

Reviewing this article shows that the research methodology is sound, and it would be a good resource to cite.


5. Reasonable Conclusions 

The authors of the work may have done good research, but they might draw some conclusions that are not consistent with their results. Make sure to check what the author is saying with the work before using it in your paper. Sometimes, papers will inflate the conclusions from the research, and you don't want to include the unreasonable conclusions in your paper. The exception to this would be if you planned to refute the arguments that were made by the authors as part of your paper.

The conclusions drawn in this example paper are consistent with the research that was done, thus it is a good resource to use in your paper.


6. Sources

One last place to check for credibility is the sources that are referenced at the end of the article. Look at the validity of the cited resources and ensure that they cite a reasonable amount of sources for the length of the paper. Here, government organizations, other academic journal articles, and some popular sources are cited. These are more relevant resources for a paper of this nature and the fact that there are 30 sources is a good indication that this source is credible.

If you've decided that the resource you've analyzed for credibility is perfect for your project, you might like to look through the citations to see if there are any other resources that might be helpful to include.

Once you've gone through this process, you'll need to incorporate your sources into your project. For ideas on how to do this, click here.